Since 2006, Shen Yun ("the beauty of divine beings dancing") has been presenting programs designed to "revive 5,000 years of authentic Chinese culture" through music and dance. On Friday, the 2014 edition of Shen Yun began a brief run at the Merriam Theater, where it charmed and astonished, but ultimately left this viewer feeling profoundly uncomfortable.
Large-scale "folkloric" extravaganzas like Shen Yun have a venerable history - think Riverdance, or Philadelphia's Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble. Like them, Shen Yun highlights colorful and exotic traditions from various regions of its homeland. It also augments the impact of its 40 superb dancers and live orchestra with projected digital backdrops of idyllic Chinese landscapes, plus state-of-the-art visual effects that make it seem as though a human performer has suddenly been transformed into an animated image. While unsettling, at first, this combination of the traditional with 21st-century technology works surprisingly well.
What doesn't work is the clumsy insertion - in its song lyrics, program notes, and the patter of its irritating bilingual emcees - of references to New York City-based Shen Yun's political agenda. Most of the performance features "Chinese classical dance," a combination of ballet and tumbling with traditional Chinese steps and postures. There are demure young women gracefully manipulating multicolored fans, and lusty young men striking heroic poses, plus the occasional amusing folk tale, with moral lesson. So it comes as a shock to see a contemporary scene in which Communist Party thugs attack a group of young people meditating in a park.
This represents the Chinese government's continuing, sometimes violent, crackdown on the popular spiritual discipline Falun Gong, with which Shen Yun is affiliated, and which has been the subject of controversy both within and outside of China.
Ironically, given Shen Yun's protest against enforced uniformity, too much of the music and the steps - contributed by different composers and choreographers - seemed the same. Likewise, when the emcees encouraged audience members to learn Chinese by repeating "I love Shen Yun," the effect was chilling.